“I the company continued to use soundtracks in all

“I only hope that we don’t lose sight
of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”

~ Walt Disney, “What Is Disneyland” television program (27 October 1954)

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Experimenting with Sound and Colours


The Golden Age of animation started with the first sound
cartoons in 1928. At that time Walt Disney gained popularity with his series of
Mickey Mouse cartoons. Everything
began with a short animation called “Plane
Crazy”, which was a silent film, just like all previous Disney’s works. It was soon followed by
“The Gallopin’ Gaucho”, but it was not as successful as its
predecessor. This is when the concept for sound animation started. Pat Powers,
an Irish businessman, sold Disney a Cinephone system – a sound-on-film technology – which was the key to Disney’s first Mickey cartoon with a sound called “Steamboat Willie”. It guaranteed a
howling success and the company continued to use soundtracks in all future projects
(Pallant, 2011).


In 1929 Disney released a new series
entitled Silly Symphonies. The first
animation – “The Skeleton Dance” –
was fully animated by Ub Iwerks. Even though both Mickey Mouse and Silly
Symphonies were successful, Walt Disney fell out with his distributor – Pat
Powers – over money. Powers responded by proposing Disney’s head animator –
Iwerks, a deal to create his own animation studio. As a result, Disney signed a
new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. Ub Iwerks launched his own
projects, but eventually he shut his studio and returned to Disney in 1940. (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.48)

In early 1930s Mickey Mouse became extremely popular worldwide and Disney signed a new contract
with Technicolour company to create
the first three-strip full-colour
animation called “Flowers and Trees”.
It was quite an experimental project – the animation was already in production,
when Walt Disney decided to convert it to colour cartoon (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.50).
This almost ruined him financially, but in the end the animation came out
ahead. “Flowers and Trees” was a
first cartoon to win an Oscar – it happened in 1932, during the 5th
Academy Awards (Glenday, 2014: p. 208).

Silly Symphonies reached its peak of glory in 1933,
when Disney created his most successful short – “The Three Little Pigs”. The story was both socially and culturally
significant during The Great
Depression, cartoon’s main song “Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf” became a
national hit (Mollet, 2013: p.48).



In 1930s Disney revolutionised Mickey Mouse cartoons by changing character’s design. Models
appeared more flexible and could perform more complicated movements (Solomon, 2007). In 1932, the show
received a special Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject. Disney
started creating new characters such as Pluto (1930), Donald Duck (1934), Goofy
(1932) – they soon got their individual cartoons. Donald’s temperament made him
Disney’s second most popular cartoon character. He first appeared in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934 (Mollet, 2013: p.52).


Disney never stopped experimenting,
in 1937 he invented a multiplane camera
and picked “The Old Mill” as its
so-called “guinea pig”. The animation showed what could be done with visual
imagery without including a dialogue (Lee
and Madej, 2012: p.61). The idea
turned out to be successful and was soon used in Disney’s first feature-length
animated film.


Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs – the true Golden Age begins


Back in June 1934 Walt Disney announced the idea to make his
first feature length animation based on the “Snow White” (1854) fairy tale by
the Brothers Grimm. He believed that the plot has a decisive impact on an
animated film. The production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was
based on Disney’s previous techniques (Norman
Rockwell Museum, 2013). He imagined his heroine as a very realistic and
believable character – however, Disney’s workers had no experience in animating
humans. This is when company decided to make its first realistic animation of human figure. In November 1934 created
a short called “The Goddess of Spring”. The main character – Persephone, was a
key-stepping stone in designing the figure of Snow White, but she was not
realistically alive. Disney hired a professional dancer to help animators
understand the importance of realistic movements and face expressions (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.58).


Despite the financial questions, “Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs” finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los
Angeles on December 21st, 1937. The standing ovation at the end of
presentation proved that Snow White
achieved the long-awaited success. It is believed to be the most influential
animation in the history (Meyer, 2016:
p.14). It cost Disney over one million dollars and over 62 people were
involved in the production (John C. Flinn
Sr. 1937), but at the end the animation was a spectacular success. It is one
of the top ten performers in the North
American box office (adjusted for inflation) (Meyer, 2016: p.14).


1940s: Financial Distress and War


After the release of Snow
White, the studio continued with producing even more complicated
animations. Only 3 years later, they released Disney’s second animated feature
film called “Pinocchio” (February
7, 1940) – even though it cost twice
as much, it was not as successful as “Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs”. A few months later, on November 13, “Fantasia” saw the light of the day in its
complete form. During production, Disney came up with the Fantasound system – it was a new stereophonic sound reproduction technology,
that was designed by Disney’s engineers to improve the dramatic presentation of
motion picture and replace the sound-reproduction system (Garity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942). Even with such a
technological improvement, “Fantasia” received
mixed reviews and was considered a financial failure.

 Due to money difficulties, Walt Disney had to tighten the purse strings.
In 1941 a low-budget feature film, “Dumbo”, was released. Even though
it was cheaper, the production process was rough – in May 1941, over 200 Disney employees went on strike (Gabler, 2006). However, “Dumbo” was the first successful
animation since Snow White premiere.


In December 1941 the US entered World
War II, what immediately affected Disney. The only feature film that was still
in production was “Bambi” (Gabler, 2006). Because of the war, studio focused on
making propaganda shorts – “Saludos Amigos” (1942), “The Three Caballeros” (1944), “Make Mine Music” (1946), “Fun and Fancy Free” (1947), “Melody Time” (1948) and “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad”
(1949) – the collection of Disney’s six package films. However, his shorts
weren’t as popular as the Mickey Mouse ones.
In 1943 studio released “Victory Through Air Power” – a documentary
feature film.

Leaving in a
blaze of glory

In 1950 Disney released “Cinderella”
– after a decade of struggling, Disney achieved a huge success and his new
production gained popularity among the world. The story of Disney’s new
princess erased the financial distress by earning $7.9 million (Gabler, 2006). Thereby, Walt Disney
could continue his previous projects.

Studio released a series of
live-action nature
documentaries, but “Alice in Wonderland” was Disney’s centre
of attention. Animation had its premiere in New York City and London on July
26, 1951. Disney’s goal was to create a story, where a real person interacts
with cartoon world (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.26). Even though it was not as financially successful
as “Cinderella”, the animation impressed audience favourably. Three
years later, Disney came up with Alice’s
follower – “Peter Pan”. Walt believed it was much better than his previous
animation, what was proven by positive reviews and higher income (Gabler, 2006).

“Lady and the Tramp” (1955) was a first animation in CinemaScope – a lens series used for
widescreen projections. Because of animating in the widescreen process, the
premiere was delayed and the whole production took twice as much time as
standard animations (Gabler, 2006).

At that time, The Golden Age of
Disney seemed to reach its peak. Before dying
of lung cancer in 1966 (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.174), Walt Disney finished
the production of “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “101
Dalmatians” (1961).
First animation was made using the new Super
Technirama system, then studio switched to Xerography technique.

 The death of Walt Disney brought his company to so-called Disney Dark Age. Even with such a tragic ending, The Golden Era created Disney’s best-known productions and made a mark in the history
of animation development. It changed the way people see cartoon animation – not
only as entertaining show, but as piece of art educational for all of us. We
owe Disney’s love for experiments, the greatest development in motion picture industry
– from basic sound cartoons to advanced full-feature animation masterpieces. With
today’s era of 3D modern animation, we should never forget that “it was all started by a mouse” (Walt Disney,


Pallant, Chris, 2011, “Demystifying
Disney: a history of Disney feature animation” Continuum International Publishing
Group Ltd

Lee, Newton; Madej, Krystyna, 2012, “Disney Stories: Getting to Digital”
Springer New York Dordrecht
Heidelberg London

Glenday, Craig, 2014, “Guinness World Records 2014” Guinness
World Records Limited

Mollet, Tracey, 2013, “Historical
‘tooning: Disney, Warner Brothers, the Depression and War 1932-1945”
The University of Leeds
Institute of Communications Studies

Solomon, Charles, 2007, “The
Golden Age of Mickey Mouse” The Walt Disney Family Museum – Special
Exhibit Articles

Norman Rockwell Museum, 2013, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

Meyer, Andrew, 2016, “Animation or Cartoons: An American Dilemma”
Seattle Pacific University

John C. Flinn Sr., 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Review
for Variety Magazine

Garity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942, “Experiences in Road-Showing Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Journal of the Society of Motion Picture

Gabler, Neal, 2006, “Walt
Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Disney, Walt, 27 October 1954, “What Is Disneyland” television program, Walt
Disney Productions